v31#6 Little Red Herrings — A Modest Proposal

by | Feb 28, 2020 | 0 comments

by Mark Y. Herring  (Dean of Library Services, Dacus Library, Winthrop University) 

When Jonathan Swift presumed his tongue-in-cheek solution to the burden of poor parents abeying the starvation and poverty of their children in Ireland, it did nothing for said children.  If truth be told, it did nothing for those poor parents, either. But like Swift, “I shall therefore humbly propose my own thought, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.”  I also humbly add, I hope not with even the least ridicule.

For the majority of my career in librarianship, librarians have bewailed the cost of scholarly communication.  Indeed, they have underscored it with their utmost asperity. It has come year after year, decade after decade.  And it doesn’t take a hawkshaw to divine the yearly answer: libraries must maintain scholarly communication at the risk of their own impoverishment.  That no one can afford the high costs of journals or aggregate databases is only underscored now by the more than two dozen Research I libraries that have cancelled the so-called “big deal” with publishers ranging from Wiley, to Springer, to Taylor and Francis, and even to Elsevier, the quondam Darth Vader of costly scholarly communication (https://bit.ly/2Ii9zZx).  We librarians are, indeed, playing in our own exequy in the opera bouffe with publishers.

And frankly, it’s killing us (https://bit.ly/2CeWs6U).  As the deals have gotten larger and more marginal journals have been added, libraries, facing sustained and, at times, strident cuts, can simply no longer afford these deals, even if they want to pay for them.  But why should we want to extend this worst-than-a curate’s egg agreement? The five and six figure deals threaten to cut libraries out of the academic mix altogether. It’s no secret that libraries are a financial black hole.  With the growing cost of these big deals, and even the smaller ones, that black hole is looking more and more like an inevitable dead star.

It’s baffling, too, that we continue to play the poet maudit in this drama when you consider that, as I wrote elsewhere, conventional publishing Hoovers out research from our institutions of higher education, pays nothing for it, copyrights the materials for themselves in perpetuity, and then charges a fortune for that research to reappear in libraries on those same campuses where those faculty work.  An outsider who hears this calculus finds it ridiculous; we in academe not only find it normal, we often protect its survival.

But perhaps there is a way out.  Unfortunately, we must act quickly before this potential solution, this preliminary brouillion, is monetized right out from under us.  Why not bring together our institution’s repositories, both large, medium, and small, for each of us to enjoin? These IRs stretch all across the country and even across the pond.  It would not take much effort to draw all of these together in the spirit of true collaboration, each of us sharing what our faculties are researching, and all for a very nominal cost.  While it’s true, the larger research institutions will contribute more, that is already true in conventional consortia. Initially, we could group these IRs regionally to make the endeavor more palatable.  Failing this, should some think it too ambitious, we could agree among ourselves to spend a portion of our budgets on open access materials annually, thereby signaling publishers our concerns for the staggering costs and our seriousness in seeing an end to it.

Think of the return.  Thousands of IRs sharing their intellectual footprints for next to nothing.  First-rate research in the hands of students in universities everywhere and reducing costs to them significantly, because, let’s face it, scholarly communication is a chief but not the exclusive culprit in university cost escalation.

We need to act quickly, however.  Some of the monetization is already occurring with the giant publishers mentioned above trying to strike deals with various entities, the most recent of which was Elsevier’s acquisition of bepress [sic].  It’s only going to get worse as publishers and vendors that used to mock the open access movement are now sidling up to OA as it becomes more robust and less uncertain to libraries.  

It cannot be doubted that in the beginning, this omnium gatherium of IRs would be less rich than the current aggregate database arrangement.  This is, after all, an idea whose time has come but very late. Over time, however, as each of these IRs grew and matured, it might well be possible to cut the umbilical cord to publishers, if not completely, then significantly.  

Tenure and promotion committees — one the main drivers of the madness we now suffer from — would need to retool and reassess what counts as scholarship.  Open access is not a vanity press, but it can be. So can conventional publishing, especially in the more esoteric academic journals. Given the recent hoaxes euchred at several peer review journals, one cannot argue that standard publishing is without its own inherent drawbacks (https://bit.ly/2OAcZtC).  Retooling is going on now, and it is not an impossible task to consider.  In fact, it should have been done at least a decade or more ago.

It’s true that some repositories are now available in Google searches via Google Scholar, but they do not rise to the top of every search, and they are generally unknown to novice researchers.  What I am proposing here is an attempt to bring all of this copyrighted content from IRs together in one place for easy searching and distribution, printing, downloading and the like. If such a database supplanted even one aggregate database like Academic Search Complete or its facsimile, the game would be worth the candle.

This is not a matter of ragging on acquisitive publishers, though some might see it as that.  It’s an attempt to drive a knife into the heart of the current scholarly communication nexus and so assuage, if only a little bit, our crack-cocaine-like addition to the exorbitant cost of sharing with one another the scholarly communication that is already ours to begin with.  

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